Extroverted Like Me
How a month and a half on Paxil taught me to love being shy.
Slate turns 10 this week, and we're publishing The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology. In celebration of the book and the anniversary, we're publishing (or, rather, re-publishing) a selection of pieces from the anthology, including this article. This article was originally published Jan. 2, 2001. You can see a list of all the republished pieces, as well as everything else we are publishing in honor of the anniversary, here.
Download MP3 audio of Seth Stevenson reading this story here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.
Day 35: Drinking a lot, several nights a week. Liquor + Paxil = Wow!
Pre-Paxil, I was a social drinker. Now I'm walking a mile in someone else's brain chemistry. I can see why some of you like to drink so much, maybe even need to drink so much. It's fun for me now, in a way it just wasn't before. On liquor and Paxil, strangers mean novelty, not fear. Group conversations are a chance to play raconteur, not a chance to smile weakly and shut up.
And it's so much better than sobriety. Sober for me these days means extreme detachment. Movies, once a favorite hobby, do nothing for me now. Likewise books—I just don't connect with the plots or characters. I can't recall laughing (while sober) in the past couple of weeks. I'm never sad, but never happy. Why wouldn't I drink?
Day 38: I spent the first semester of my freshman year of college in a haze. During the Southern California evenings, I often played tennis, pulling bong hits between games. I distilled homemade rum in my dorm room, using Sterno cans and plastic tubing. My roommate grew six ounces of weed in our closet. It was more fun than I'd ever had in my life. The day after I got home for Christmas break, I decided to transfer.
It occurs to me that the past month has been a bit like that semester. I'm living the unexamined life. It's fantastic. I'm about ready to transfer.
Day 45: I stop my treatment. I had planned elaborate tests for myself—crashing formal parties, giving a dinner toast to a full restaurant, singing jazz standards in subway stations—but I decide these will prove nothing. Also, my lack of engagement with life is freaking out my girlfriend. And my seismic personality shift when drunk is freaking out me.
My day-to-day, sober interactions with people are unchanged by Paxil. A crisis along the lines of a public speaking engagement would still send sweat coursing down my spine (unless I downed a few scotch-and-sodas first). As best I can tell, Paxil works by creating massive detachment from your own emotions. If your social anxiety verges on looniness, detachment from those emotions is a good thing. For me, a milder case, hard-core detachment is just spooky. So, no more pills.
III. The Withdrawal
Day 46: At dinner, I feel the onset of mutation. While staring at a plate of artichoke hearts, my focus suddenly shifts, like the track-out/zoom-in camera trick in Vertigo. My brain is shifting out of Paxil gear and back to normal. It's like coming down off a hallucinogen. Later in the evening, it happens a few more times.
Day 47: Cannot get out of bed. Pounding headache. Extreme intestinal unhappiness. Dizzy all day.
Day 48: More of the same. I'm exhibiting classic withdrawal, which I've read about on some anti-Paxil Web sites. The dizziness and lightheadedness are overwhelming and far scarier than mere stomach distress. I leave the house but have to sit down every 10 minutes for fear of keeling over.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.
Illustrations by Nina Frenkel.